Time for Fernandez to earn his stripes

Israel and its new coach host Malta to open qualifying campaign for Euro 2012.

Israeli football (photo credit: IFA Web site)
Israeli football
(photo credit: IFA Web site)
Israel begins its Euro 2012 qualifying campaign on Thursday night with a match it simply must win.
The blue-and-white hosts Malta at National Stadium in Ramat Gan and new coach Luis Fernandez knows that anything but a victory in his first official match in charge will be a massive blow to the team’s hopes of finally reaching a major tournament.
“We are facing a tough opponent and it won’t be easy,” Fernandez said.
“There are no longer any easy matches in world soccer. We will need to show plenty of determination and most importantly play together as a team. I know that this is a match we have to win.”
In his first two matches at the helm, Fernandez saw his side suffer 4-1 and 3-1 friendly defeats to World Cup bound Uruguay and Chile, respectively.
However, he has since deepened his knowledge in Israeli soccer and has put together a squad he believes can challenge for a top-two finish in Group F, which also includes Croatia, Greece, Latvia and Georgia.
“I’m delighted we are finally starting the campaign,” Fernandez said. “I hope that we will be able to accomplish our goal of reaching the European Championships. I have got 23 players who are looking forward to playing and winning.”
Malta picked up just a single point in its 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign, drawing 0-0 with Albania, and hasn’t scored a goal in an official match since November 2007.
However, all Fernandez needs to do to ward off any complacency is point to the squad the teams’ last meeting in Antalya, Turkey in September 2003. Israel needed a late Pini Balili equalizer to secure a 2-2 draw, with Michael Mifsud and David Carabott scoring for the visitors following Haim Revivo’s first-half opener.
“We know we are facing a tough match, but we will be ready,” said Mifsud, Malta’s all-time leading scorer with 26 goals, who played for Coventry City of the English Championship division until last summer.
“Israel has some big names and a good squad, but we are hoping for a positive result.”
Fernandez is planning to spring several surprises in his starting line-up on Thursday.
Dudu Aouate will certainly be in goal, but the Frenchman is expected to make changes to the back-four that started during Dror Kashtan’s tenure.
Tal Ben-Haim will retain his place at the center of the defense, but he will likely be joined by Tamir Cohen, who has played as a midfielder during his entire career.
Dedi Ben-Dayan should start on the left, with Danny Bondarv the favorite to play on the right.
Celtic’s Biram Kiyal and Almog Cohen of Nuremburg are expected to hold the midfield, with Lior Rafaelov and Eran Zehvi likely to play on the flanks.
Captain Yossi Benayoun will be given a free role in the center of the field, playing behind lone-striker Ben Sahar, meaning Hapoel Tel Aviv’s Gili Vermut, last season’s Premier League player of the year, will start the match on the bench.
“We are the favorites, but Malta is a good team which will play a defensive game,” Sahar said. “I believe that Croatia and Greece will be our main rivals for qualification, but we need to get the job done on the field and not just talk about it.”
Benayoun is optimistic Israel will gets its campaign off on the right foot and is confident he will not need to carry the team on his slender shoulders.
“There is always pressure before the start of every campaign, but it is positive pressure and every player wants to be in this situation.” the Chelsea midfielder said.
“I’m an important player in the squad, but there are a lot of good and talented players and if we all give 100 percent we can succeed. We are slightly inferior to Croatia and Greece, who are better than us on paper, but we believe in ourselves, even though we disappointed in the last campaign. We will do everything so that doesn’t happen again.”